Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 22, 2013

Page Mill Road houses to make way for mixed-use building

Plan for 441 Page Mill earns positive reception from architecture board

by Gennady Sheyner

A row of dilapidated houses near one of Palo Alto's busiest intersections will likely make way for a three-story development with retail, offices and apartments.

The 32,524-square-foot building would stand at a site currently occupied by four single-story houses on a traffic-heavy block of Page Mill Road, just east of El Camino Real. The homes, which are largely in disrepair, look increasingly out of place on a commercial block that includes Kelly Moore Paint Store and the AT&T store. The site is also in close proximity to the large AOL office development at 395 Page Mill Road.

The city's Architectural Review Board on Thursday had its first discussion of the building, proposed by architectural firm Stoecker and Northway.

While the final details for the new development have yet to be approved, the project is off to an auspicious start. The city has already rezoned the site at 441 Page Mill Road to accommodate commercial use. And on Thursday, the board had mostly positive things to say after hearing a presentation by architect John Northway.

The proposal (as well as its reception) is radically different from the one the city had considered for the site in 2008. At that time, Palo Alto officials explored building a five-story luxury hotel. That project was slammed by various commissioners and members of the surrounding neighborhoods, with critics basically agreeing that the proposed hotel is far too big and dense for the site.

The new proposal would also bring more development to the site, though officials generally agree that this is not a bad thing given the surrounding area and the nature of Page Mill Road as a major thoroughfare.

Northway said the building's facade is consistent with what architects and city planners envision for the increasingly urban future of Page Mill Road, which runs through the middle of the city between U.S. Highway 101 and U.S. Highway 280.

"Probably in five years this will be regarded as a charming little building sitting on Page Mill Road," Northway said.

The proposal is the latest in a large pile of mixed-use buildings currently going through the city's planning process. But while most of these — including planned four-story developments at 135 Hamilton Ave. and 611 Cowper St. — consist largely of office space and small residential components (the Hamilton project would include two units and the Cowper one would include one), the Page Mill building would include eight residential units on the third floor.

The first floor of the three-story, 40-foot-tall building would be devoted to retail and the second floor to offices. Three of these units would be affordable housing, of which there is a gaping need in Palo Alto.

The new proposal is the latest step in the ongoing intensification of the area around the California Avenue Business District. The city is targeting the area for greater development because of its location near the Caltrain station and near the California Avenue commercial strip. Among the most ambitious projects that the city is currently looking at is a proposal by Jay Paul to build two office buildings totally 311,000 square feet near the AOL buildings.

The proposal by Northway, on behalf of property owner Norm Schwab, is nowhere near the scale of the Jay Paul's. But according to a report from Palo Alto's planning staff, neighbors had expressed concerns about an increase in traffic, loss of privacy and the building's density. Northway responded by placing the building farther from the rear property line, planting a row of trees as a buffer and setting the building's third story further back.

The board had a few suggestions on the design of the facade and placement of the balcony, with member Alex Lew urging Northway to reposition the balconies so building residents could see the foothills. Board member Lee Lippert also suggested Northway consider a more "bold" design, possibly with greater height.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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